The Vacheron Constantin Les Cabinotiers Westminster Sonnerie Tribute to Johannes Vermeer offers a rare glimpse of what can be accomplished at the pinnacle of high watchmaking. The elite Swiss watchmaker’s bespoke studio, Les Cabinotiers, is dedicated to making one-of-a-kind bespoke pieces that the public rarely sees; they exist only for the pleasure of the collectors who commission them. This is one of the exceptions – the client agreed to let Vacheron share the details – and it represents an example of what is possible in high watchmaking if you have the means (the price is top secret but certainly in the six figures) and the time – it was eight years in development.
It contains a customized movement, the 806-component manual wound caliber 3761, with a tourbillon, minute repeater, grande and petite sonnerie and Westminster chime, using five separate gongs. The term Westminster chime refers to the world-famous bells of Big Ben, the clock in the British Tower of Parliament in London. Its theme is a four-bar melody played at different frequencies. The notes must be struck in perfect harmony, something that requires a high degree of precision and pace. A Grande Sonnerie (grand strike) is a watch that strikes the hours and quarter hours in passing and repeats the hour at each quarter. A petite sonnerie (small strike) repeats the hours and quarters in passing, without repeating the hours at each quarter. A minute repeater repeats hours, quarters and minutes on demand. If this sounds like a lot of chiming, rest assured that the watch can be set to silent mode, which suspends the striking function.
The tourbillon escapement is constructed in a way that not only compensates for the effects of gravity on the movement but incorporates a mechanism that keeps the seconds hand steady as it moves around the subdial on the face of this very large watch – it measures 98mm wide and 32.6mm thick. Every component of the movement is hand finished and decorated according to the rigorous criteria of the Geneva Seal hallmark.
The visual elements are as impressive as the technical ones. The hinged cover over the dial is enameled in a miniature reproduction of Johannes Vermeer’s Girl With a Pearl Earring, painted by Swiss enamel artist Anita Porchet, whose fame in the watch world equals that of Vermeer’s in the art world. The portrait took seven months of work, stretched out over two years, and included more than 20 firings in the kiln. The 18k yellow gold case is also elaborately finished. Every surface is hand engraved in motifs ranging from tulips, pearls and acanthus leaves to a pair of roaring lions, one on each side of the bow surrounding the crown. The engraving and sculpting took five months of meticulous craftsmanship.
“This piece was commissioned by a passionate collector who wanted a pocket watch that was technically and aesthetically exceptional, reflecting the noblest traditions of 18th century haute horlogerie,” says Christian Selmoni, Vacheron Constantin’s director of heritage & style. “He told us he had long dreamed of having a real Westminster chime pocket watch in his collection, adorned with miniature enamel.”
Although the Westminster Sonnerie Tribute to Johannes Vermeer isn’t the most complicated watch Vacheron Constantin has made – that was the 260th anniversary Ref. 57260, which currently stands as the world’s most complicated watch – “it is perhaps the most ornate,” says Selmoni.